In his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy argues that we cannot see the Grand Canyon, for example, with as much wonderment as we see a random object in nature: “It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind.”
Instead of the delight in the Grand Canyon coming from the canyon itself, the delight comes from the degree to which the canyon conforms to the viewer’s idea of what it should be, an idea formed from paintings and picture postcards and scenes from movies, the accruement of decades’ worth of preconceptions that are rooted not in the thing itself, but the representation of the thing. In doing so, Percy notes, “the present is surrendered to the past and the future.”
After presenting his central tenet, Percy goes on to lay out strategies for how viewers may recover an authentic experience of the Grand Canyon, most of which involve defying the National Park Service’s approved plan for sightseeing. As viewers watching the MLB playoffs at home, we are almost without choice in how we take in a game. We are beholden to how the broadcast company airs the game, with how many breaks and at what time; our eyes are directed by how the camerapeople film the game, what cutaways to fans they believe best convey the experience of being there, or what angles they deem most important; and we are told by the broadcast team what plays loom large or small, if a ball is actually a ball or a strike—the experience is interpreted for us.
So baseball must do the work of recovering its own authentic experience, which somehow it does, game after game; despite postseason games that accrue like a stack of picture postcards in the attic, games find new ways to surprise and delight, to maintain their own present without being surrendered to the past and the future. While the Astros-Red Sox game Monday afternoon was not the first postseason baseball game to recover itself from the symbolic complex, as it will not be the last, it was one of the most entertaining in recent memory.
The first way Percy suggests the experience of the Grand Canyon can be recovered is by leaving the beaten track, or exploiting the not-yet-exploited. The sightseer who disregards the map to the Grand Canyon forges a unique opportunity to view the thing; similarly, John Farrell literally left the beaten track when he interceded Monday on behalf of his second baseman, physically positioning his body between home plate umpire Mark Wegner and Dustin Pedroia after the latter was punched out on a borderline strike three call with the bases loaded and one out.
Walker Percy does not explicitly mention the role sacrifice plays in recovering a lost creature, but as Farrell walked away from the field to watch the remainder of the game from his managerial lair, it seems like an element that merits mention.
Another way Percy suggests the creature may be recovered is by a dialectical movement: by being on the beaten track, but at a level above it, as in the example of a lifelong New Yorker going to the Statue of Liberty. This game also provided an opportunity for the “savoring of the familiar as the familiar,” with an old-fashioned pitcher’s duel: Chris Sale vs. Justin Verlander, a classic matchup that happened to start in the fourth and fifth innings, respectively.
Chris Sale was Chris Sale: hunched over the mound like a praying mantis, he retired seven straight batters before Yuli Gurriel reached on an error. Justin Verlander was not Justin Verlander at first: he gave up one hit over his 2 2/3 innings of work, to the first batter he faced, and it was a go-ahead two-run home run. Verlander would get the win; Sale would give up a home run to tie the game and be saddled with the season-ending loss for the Red Sox. Baseball is its own dialectical movement sometimes.
Percy also argues that the thing may be recovered if one avoids the symbolic complex that appropriated the thing in the first place, whether by intent or by disaster. (Starters as relievers is a good example of avoiding the symbolic complex due to disaster.)
Rafael Devers is 20 years old. No one told him, yet, about the symbolic complex.
I hope no one ever does.